Born: November 26, 1939;

Died: September 24, 2021.

GREY Gowrie, Lord Gowrie, who has died after a long illness a the age of 81, was a prominent figure in the arts and politics.

He had several posts in the Thatcher Government but caused a stir when he resigned in 1985 as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and as arts minister, complaining he could not afford to live in London on the salary of £33,000 that was paid to peers in the Cabinet.

From 1985 to 1986 he was chairman of Sotheby’s International (his annual salary was reputed to be between £150,000 and £200,000) then, from 1987 until 1994, of Sotheby’s Europe.

In 1994 he succeeded Lord Palumbo as chairman of the Arts Council of England. He described himself then as a “music, visual arts and movie man”.

Gowrie was a colourful and flamboyant character who added a certain zest to Westminster. He delighted in wearing floppy bow-ties at a raffish angle and his flowing locks made him stand out in the Cabinet. But he was also a serious literary figure and a published poet, who had lectured on American and English literature. He chaired the 1993 Booker Prize panel that gave the award to Roddy Doyle’s novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

Alexander Patrick Greysteil Hore-Ruthven (always known as “Grey” Gowrie) was born in Dublin to Captain (later Major) Patrick Hore-Ruthven of the Rifle Brigade, and Pamela, nee Fletcher. He and his brother lived in Dublin while his parents served in Cairo during the war.

Aged just three when his father died during a commando raid, he was brought up by his grandparents and at the age of 15 he succeeded to the title of 2nd Earl of Gowrie upon the death of his grandfather, a former governor general of Australia.

The Ruthvens had been a politically influential family in 16th century Scotland and owned large tracts of land: mention is made in ancient records of the old Earldom of Gowrie as “lying between the Earldom of Atholl and the province of Fife”.

The family can trace their origins as far back as the 12th century, with connections in the parish of Tibbermore, in Perthshire.

One of Gowrie’s forebears, Patrick, Lord Ruthven, was leader of the group of men who stabbed Mary Queen of Scots’ private secretary, David Rizzio, in a tiny room in Holyrood Palace in 1566. A cousin, Beatrix Leslie Ruthven, was, in 1661, the last witch to be burnt in Scotland after being accused of collapsing a coal-pit in Newbattle through witchcraft.

The Gowrie family were involved in the Gowrie Conspiracy of 1600. The young Earl and his brother, the Master of Ruthven, were hatching a plot to kill King James VI at House of Ruthven (now the Huntingtower) near Perth. It was unsuccessful, and both men were killed by the king’s attendants and their lands confiscated.

Grey Gowrie himself never lost his connection with Scotland and often described himself thus: “I’m an Irishman, with a Scots title, married to a German.”

He attended Eton before reading English at Balliol College, Oxford. He edited Isis, the university magazine, and donated a painting by the then unfashionable David Hockney to the college. He then lectured at Harvard and at University College London.

He made his maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1968 on the reform of the Lords, and three years later he became a whip in the upper house.

His first real appointment under Mrs Thatcher was in the Northern Ireland Office (1981-85) where his principal responsibility was for prisons during the Maze hunger strikers.

During his time as arts minister (1983-85) he introduced a scheme that allowed donations to public galleries to be offset against death duties. He was very much a hands-on minister and saw the arts as a powerful cultural boost for the economy.

When he informed Mrs Thatcher he wished to step down as minister for the arts, she offered him the post of education secretary, a title then held by Sir Keith Joseph; she believed that with his “great personality” Gowrie would “electrify” education, according to Lord Charles Moore’s biography of Baroness Thatcher. But Gowrie refused, saying people would not accept someone from the Lords running one of the government’s key social departments.

In her Downing Street memoirs Baroness Thatcher observed: “Grey had a fine, highly cultivated mind and great style”.

In 1987 he became chairman of Sotheby’s and was a major influence in ensuring the auction house became a truly international business by increasing its presence in New York.

In 1994 he became chairman of the Arts Council and provost of the Royal College of Art. At the former he was the focus of many brickbats from the public, who considered the arts got too much – or not enough – money. He strongly argued the case for public funding but admitted when he left in 1998 that many of the smaller arts companies were “on the brink of extinction”.

In 1994 he had welcomed the injections of huge National Lottery sums into the arts as the “best news for the funding of the arts in my lifetime’’.

His other arts-related posts included chairman of The Really Useful Group, the theatre company.

In 2000 he had an extensive but successful heart operation and then spent much time writing, especially poems.

His first marriage, in 1962, to Xandra Bingley ended in divorce in 1974. Later that year he married Adelheid Grafin von der Schulenburg, daughter of Count Fritz-Dietlof Graf von der Schulenburg, who was executed by the Nazis as one of the leaders of the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

He is survived by his wife and a son from his first marriage and a daughter from his second. Patrick Ruthven succeeds him as 3rd Earl of Gowrie.